The holy town of Varanasi is not a ‘city of the dead’. That honorific is reserved for the Islamic necropolis below the Mokattam Hills in southeastern Cairo, Egypt, and perhaps the coastal town of Davoa in the Philippines, following its then mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s relentless war on drugs leading to thousands of extra-judicial killings.
Yet that is how a CNN documentary series titled Believer describes the Hindu holy city. Anchored by the apparently learned Reza Aslan—a bestselling author who has been less than truthful about his academic credentials—it has extensive shots of corpses cremated on the banks of the Ganga.
Much of the footage is devoted to the Aghoris, a tiny sect who sometimes indulge in revolting practices at the city’s crematoria. Cannibals, screamed promotional clips, with a gross cut of a sadhu flinging urine. Outraged Hindus across the world reacted strongly. Here’s what the Hindu American Foundation, which saw a preview of the episode (which aired on CNN Mar. 5) has to say:
‘The episode ... devotes copious footage to highlighting stereotypical and sensationalised presentations of Hinduism: Simplistic description of karma; conflations of caste/varna/jati; and the pollution in ... the Ganga.’’
But let’s not grudge CNN the right to do this. Let’s also forgive factual errors, like calling every ghat in the city a crematorium, or even white lies like being the ‘first’ to document this sect.
The question to ask, however, is the timing. At a time when most Americans don’t even know whether Shiva or Vishnu are associated with Hinduism, the question, raised by HAF, is: “When the knowledge deficit is so stark, and minority communities are facing a rise in hate incidents across the US—a Hindu American was killed and a Sikh American shot in likely hate crimes in the past week—why would Aslan and CNN sensationalise the Aghoris as a prime-time introduction to the faith of a billion Hindus, most of whom have never seen or met an Aghori?”